Ukrainian pilgrims riot on Rosh Hashanah

Celebrations in Uman masked a row over cash demands


By Edward Doks, September 24, 2009
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Dancing in the street: Followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav celebrate near his grave before Rosh Hashanah.  Around 25,000 men flock to the small town each year, mainly from Israel

Dancing in the street: Followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav celebrate near his grave before Rosh Hashanah. Around 25,000 men flock to the small town each year, mainly from Israel

As 25,000 Bratslav Chassidim descended on the Ukrainian town of Uman last week to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the grave of their rebbe, Rav Nachman, an unprecedented row broke out over the authorities’ demands for money.

The Rebbe Nachman Foundation complained to Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko that the Chassidim are being required to pay some $22,000 to the Uman water company to supply and purify water, $1,700 to sanitation inspectors, $3,200 for gas and $8,300 for rubbish collection services.

They are also being required to pay $1,666 in taxes, which, according to the lawyers, is supposed to cover fees that flat owners who rent out their properties to the Chassidim avoid paying.

In previous years, the lawyers admit, they paid the fees, in cash.

“But this year, there is the credit crunch, and second, some of our donors have died. We want to pay reasonable amounts, and we want receipts,” said spokesperson Marina Goncharuk.

The trip organisers say the tax authorities have no right to demand these payments from tourists, and that the electricity and gas expenses should be paid according to the meter. There was also conflict with the police force, which secures the Chassidim.

“We got a bill for $77,000. In the past, it was $30,000. Why has the price gone up so much? We could have hired a private security firm for a third of the price, but the private services are afraid to compete with the police, in order not to lose their license,” said Ms Goncharuk.

The police did not deny that there was a “charity contribution” meant to cover the police’s expenses, but did not confirm the terms of the agreement. Neither Prime Minister Timoshenko nor the Uman municipality responded to the claims.

Meanwhile, billionaire Alexander Mashkevitch — who last year contributed $3 million to have a lien on Rabbi Nachman’s grave lifted after a contractor sued the Bratslavers for non-payment for his work — called on the Ukrainian Parliament to recognise the pilgrimage as an annual event.

This would enable infrastructure to be developed that would help the small town host tens of thousands of visitors each Rosh Hashanah. Mr Mashkevitch also called on the authorities to stop cutting off water, electricity and gas for the Chasidim during the festival.

Mayor Yuri Bodrov, who attended Mr Mashkevitch’s press conference, said that the visitors were asked to pay the expenses because the town had no other way of paying such large sums.

Ms Goncharuk said that the parties had agreed that in the future, the municipality will tax the airlines, bus companies and others who make money from the annual pilgrimage, to cover some of the communal expenses.

But Josef Zissels, the chair of the Va’ad umbrella group of Jewish organisations in Ukraine remained skeptical. “Each year the Chassidim leave $25-$30 million in Uman. But despite that each year there is chaos, even when they pay everything demanded of them.

“This year they don’t have the money, so the chaos will be even greater.”

    Last updated: 5:35pm, September 24 2009